Afghans pour into Pakistan
"They shot and killed our mullah. They closed our mosques. They confiscated our land, and they beat and arrested all those who disobeyed," said a bearded and turbaned Afghan headman.
"We tried to fight back, but they took our guns -- so we fled."
Standing outside a refugee camp amid a throng of fellow male tribesmen passionately nodding and shouting in agreement, the Malik, or headman, explained how eight months ago he and his people had fled the increasing repression of the atheistic communist regime in Kabul.
Today the Malik and his people, some of them wearing blankets (donated by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait) over thick layers of assorted jackets to keep out the bitter sub-zero temperatures, are among more than half a million refugees now packed into Pakistan. They are part of what has now become the world's largest refugee problem.
The magnitude and seriousness of the situation still do not appear to be fully appreciated by the rest of the world. There are hardly any United Nations field workers here -- three compared to 300 in Thailand, where there are fewer than half as many refugees. And the number of refugees swells every day. "It could be anything between 600,000 and 700,000," says one United Nations field observer.
More than 16,000 refugees were reported to have crossed into Pakistani Baluchistan during the past week from Afghanistan's Kandahar region, where Soviet troops apparently control the main security points. Another 5,000 families are reported to be making their way toward the frontier, trying to cross it quickly in case the Soviets cut off access to Pakistan.
Months before the Soviets moved into Afghanistan in massive force, the Malik and his people had made a similar journey. Continually harassed by Khalq soldiers and occasionally strafed by Russian MIG jet fighters, they had trudged over 100 miles of barren rocky wasteland leading what few camels, donkeys, and cows they could take with them before reaching the refuge of Pakistan's equally arid 134-square-mile Baluchistan Province. (They had left the young men behind to join the rebel Mujahideen fighting against the Soviet- backed Khalq government.)
Since the Dec. 27 invasion, they were joined by a further 285 Argastan men, women, and children. These people had been hiding in the mountains until their food ran out and had treked six days to the mountainous Pakistan border.
The fact the Soviets had now invaded their country appears to make little difference in their attitude toward the Kabul regime. If anything, it has only succeeded in firing their hatred for the communists even more.
Now they live among 40,000 other refugees in one of the 13 major Pakistan government- organized camps in the Pichin district of Baluchistan.
Issued some 300 tents by the Pakistan government, the Afghans pitched camp along the dried-out river bed of a parched rocky valley at the foot of a snow-covered mountain range only 35 miles from the Afghan border. In an attempt to keep out the biting winter wind, the refugees have also constructed walls of hardened mud, stone, and straw reinforced by barriers of cut bushes to act as snowbreaks. More refugees flood in every day.
The Pakistanis claim to have the refugee situation under control. But only just. Officials from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) feel that although they have helped the Pakistanis prepare a solid basis for a widespread relief program to cope with the emergency, this is being rapidly undermined.
The UNHCR had only envisaged a total of half a million refugees. "Now, with the invasion of Afghanistan and the panic it has caused," noted one UN official, "we are really expecting the situation to get out of hand."
Initially, the UNCHR has elaborated a $9.6 million operation plus an additional $5 million in food relief over the next 12 months. "But this must now be fully revised to cope with new numbers," said a UN official. Pakistan's refugee population has more than doubled since last August.
Although numerous international organizations ranging from the League of Red Cross Societies to the World Council of Churches are actively involved in providing relief, the need is overwhelming.
The lack of UN relief workers is especially evident. "It is an absurd situation," said one official. "We cannot even talk to the women refugees to find out their problem because we have no women on our staff." Being extremely traditional and religious Muslims, Afghan refugee women are reluctant to visit hospitals or meet with male relief workers. The UN reports a 50 percent infant mortality rate in the camps.
"As 70 percent of the Afghan refugees are old men, women, and children," said one UN official, "we are only getting regular access to one-third of the refugee population."
Three French doctors, including one woman, however, are expected to be flown in later this week to help the UNHCR in its activities.
The Pakistani government is anxious to obtain further international aid before the situation becomes totally out of hand. "We have been forced to help Afghan refugees with our own public-relief food and medical supplies," explains Deputy Commissioner Nader Alin of Pishin District. "This is causing serious aggravation among local Pakistanis, who resent supplies being used to care for outsiders."